Photo courtesy NMSU
Twin siblings Jennakay and Matthew Colquitt will walk across the commencement stage clad in crimson as the top students from their colleges, becoming their family’s first college graduates.
Susan Stoltzfus will fulfill a lifelong dream of completing the college education she started more than 50 years ago. And Janet Kwakye will be one step closer on her journey to earning a Ph.D.
They will all graduate this week as part of New Mexico State University’s spring class of 2021 and celebrate their academic achievements by participating in commencement exercises. The in-person and virtual festivities honoring the 1,824 students expected to earn degrees from the Las Cruces campus this semester will take place Friday, May 14, and Saturday, May 15.
Following back-to-back virtual celebrations in 2020, NMSU will host two separate in-person ceremonies at Aggie Memorial Stadium for graduate degree candidates at 7 p.m. Friday and for undergraduate degree candidates at 7 p.m. Saturday. A virtual ceremony will also live stream online at 10 a.m. Saturday.
“We are so excited to be able to have not one but two in-person ceremonies as well as a virtual ceremony, which allows for more participation from our distance graduates,” said Gabrielle Martinez, NMSU graduation and curriculum data specialist and commencement coordinator.
The in-person ceremonies are invitation-only events that will adhere to strict health and safety protocols recommended by the New Mexico Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes limiting the number of attendees and only allowing graduates to invite a maximum of two guests.
Martinez said the guest cap remains in place even after Doña Ana County improved its status on the state’s color-coded map of COVID-19 risk, reaching the least-restrictive level last week.
“Planning a huge commencement event normally takes many months, and we pulled this off in a matter of weeks,” she said. “We had to craft our plans for a more restrictive level with 25 percent occupancy because the priority with this celebration is to ensure the safest possible environment for our graduates, their families and loved ones, our faculty and staff volunteers, and our surrounding community.”
All those who attend an in-person ceremony – including students, guests, volunteers, staff and faculty – will need a ticket to enter the stadium and must follow COVID-19-safe practices, such as wearing a face mask and maintaining social distancing, at all times. Both ceremonies are not open to the general public but will be live-streamed online.
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The Colquitt twins will be among the 850 participants at the undergraduate ceremony.
“It’s so much more special to walk across the stage and have your family watching,” said Jennakay Colquitt, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. “I just wish we could bring more people because there were a lot of people who supported both of us that I wish could be there to watch us walk.”
Much to their surprise, the siblings will graduate with highest honors, an honor bestowed to one student from each college who has the highest grade-point average.
“We didn’t even know it was a thing – so it wasn’t something we worked toward,” said Matthew Colquitt, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.
His sister, who plans to apply to medical schools over the summer, attributed their academic success to growing up in a farming family in Las Cruces.
“It’s a by-product of our hard work that was instilled in us because we’re from a farming family,” she said. “Both of our parents did not graduate or attend college, and we wanted to prove that we can work super hard.”
To maintain their perfect GPAs, both siblings said they put in hard work and long hours. It was a challenging but rewarding experience, they said.
“I think I was probably a little bit luckier than my sister because, you know, with engineering, it’s very objective,” Matthew Colquitt said. “I’m very proud of her, and I’m happy for both of us. I think it’s a pretty neat honor to receive.”
For Kwakye, participating in the in-person ceremony for graduate degree candidates will bring her a sense of belonging and fulfilment for all her hard work and sleepless nights.
A native of Ghana, Kwakye traveled to Las Cruces to study at NMSU in 2018. Initially, she started a mathematics program but quickly realized her passions were in engineering.
“My dream was to go into engineering,” she said, “and now, two-and-a-half years later, I have a master’s degree in industrial engineering with a 3.978 GPA.”
She said she’s looking forward to spending graduation day surrounded by her peers. Martinez said 224 students will participate in the graduate ceremony.
“I want to feel that kind of belongingness and see a lot of people around me,” Kwakye added.
Kwakye said she faced cultural challenges when she first arrived at NMSU but eventually found support and mentorship through programs like NMSU Black Programs and her church, Calvary Baptist Church.
“Luckily for me, I came across a few great people like Dan Kwame Ameme and Kwabena Sarpong, who are now alumni of NMSU and who encouraged and helped me adjust during my time at NMSU,” she said.
This fall, Kwakye will start a Ph.D. program in industrial engineering at NMSU. Her goal is to become an engineering professor, she said.
Stoltzfus will celebrate her long-awaited graduation surrounded by her family, watching the virtual ceremony from home. The 72-year-old soon-to-be great grandmother said participating in the virtual event made more sense as she wanted to experience graduation day with her family.
“I’ve done this for my children and my grandchildren. I want them to know they should reach for their dreams. I want them to reach for the stars,” said Stoltzfus, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in history. “Anything is possible if Grandma can graduate at 72.”
The virtual ceremony will feature photos and quotes from 700 graduates. It will be live-streamed on NMSU’s Facebook (https://bit.ly/3qycMY2) and YouTube (https://bit.ly/3wb0F5p) pages, as well as on Panopto (https://bit.ly/3biLm2a). KRWG Public Media also will broadcast the ceremony on TV and online at https://www.krwg.org.
Stoltzfus and her family have ties to NMSU that date back to the early 1940s. Her parents, Lonnie and Gerry Beyer, met in a chemistry class while attending NMSU. Stoltzfus first attended NMSU in the fall of 1967 to pursue a degree in education but stopped when her first child was born the summer of 1968.
After raising her four children, all of whom went to NMSU, and after her two oldest grandchildren graduated from NMSU, Stoltzfus went back to school at Doña Ana Community College in 2013 and later transferred to NMSU’s Las Cruces campus in 2017 to study history.
“I was a little fearful,” she admitted, “But one of the reasons I went back was because I believe if you don’t use your mind, you lose your mind.”
Stoltzfus, who plans to take the fall semester off and may apply to an advanced degree program in public history, said she enjoyed her time at NMSU.
“One of the coolest things was the acceptance from students. I always felt like I fit in, and I have been treated graciously and respectfully by all students,” she said. “In fact, when they figured out that I made good grades, they wanted me on their teams.”
For more information about commencement, visit https://commencement.nmsu.edu.
Author: Carlos Andres López – NMSU